In this article, we're diving into what the imposter phenomenon is - what it is, how it limits us and what you can do to disrupt it so that you can thrive as a priestess.
What I’ll be sharing with you is particularly relevant if you’re a coach, guide, teacher, healer or facilitator, but truly, this is for anyone who experiences extreme self-doubt.
My Personal Experience
I have always felt like a fraud.
Back in 2015, I had just been awarded my PhD. I remember expecting to feel elated. But I didn’t. Not only was it a complete anti-climax, but I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. The feeling of being a fraud.
I convinced myself that they had passed me just to be kind. And whenever anyone congratulated me, the knot in my stomach would tighten, and I’d quickly try to change the subject. Despite 8 years of study, I felt that I had somehow fooled everyone, and it was incredibly painful. I felt worthless and small.
Some 18 months later, I arrived in the Philippines to teach yoga full-time. As I sat in in half lotus front of my students, the excitement of teaching yoga in paradise was instantly replaced with the familiar feeling of dread. Despite having done all my trainings, and having some experience, I was convinced that I wasn’t good enough. I compared myself to all the other teachers on the island, and when Kayla, now one of my best friends moved to the island, complete with her large social media following and stunning yoga videos, I wanted to run and hide. I felt like such a fraud.
The Imposter Phenomenon & Living Our Dharma
This is the imposter phenomenon (or 'imposter syndrome') - the belief that we don’t know enough, aren’t good enough and we will at some point, get found out. It’s is the reason we keep our best ideas to ourselves, or if we do experience success, we can’t fully enjoy it because we feel we don't deserve it. The phenomenon was first identified in a 1978 study by Clance and Imes, who were studying the traits of high achieving women. They used the phrase ‘imposter phenomenon’ to describe a mindset where a person believes they are unintelligent, unsuccessful, and incompetent, although this is not the view that others have of them.
I want to be really honest with you, priestess. I still feel like a fraud from time to time. But I have thankfully learned to disrupt it, so that I can get on with the important work that I know deep down I’m here to do.
I don’t believe we can live our dharma without learning how to navigate feeling like an imposter. Our way past the imposter phenomenon is to acknowledge it for what it is, and actually use it as a springboard for growth. More on that in a moment.
Why You Feel Like a Fraud
In order to acknowledge the imposter phenomenon, we have to first understand exactly why it materialises. And there are several theories on this. Several recent studies (Bernard et. al 2017) have linked fraudulent feelings with marginalised groups, meaning that if you’re a woman or a person of colour or LGBTQ, the feeling of not being good enough may be more prevalent. These kind of studies suggest that imposter syndrome could have some sort of systemic basis and that cultural attitudes and expectations can affect how we see ourselves.
A systematic review conducted in 2019 (Bravata et al. 2019) suggests that almost all people experience imposter syndrome at some point of their lives, and anecdotally, famous sufferers include Albert Einstein, Michelle Obama, Meryl Streep and Maya Angelou.
It’s unlikely that there is a single causal factor that creates these feelings of being an imposter, but what these studies do suggest is that imposter syndrome is not a personal issue, but a socio-cultural one. This means for those of us that experience it, we can know that it is not our fault, but is most likely a response to our social environment. I personally feel that patriarchy has a lot to answer for, as it’s taught women and other marginalised groups that if they do manage to get a seat at the table, they will be scrutinised so they better be perfect to prove that they’re worthy of it. And of course there’s no such thing as perfection, so we’re set up for a fall.
Disrupting Imposter Syndrome
So my question for you is: what if the imposter syndrome you feel has nothing to do with your capabilities, but is simply an unconscious response to your conditioning?
And what if the self-doubt you feel, rather than being an indicator of your inadequacy, is actually a signpost, showing you where to lean in and engage in the process of liberation?
I believe that we create freedom when we commit to the process of questioning our internal stories - the most basic assumptions we have about ourselves and the way the world works.
Whenever our thoughts try to convince us that we aren’t good enough and don’t know enough, one of the most potent things we can do is ask ourselves: is this true?
And even more powerful still, is to search for the evidence that in fact the opposite is true.
Going back to my experience of when I was awarded my PhD, when I started looking for the evidence that I did actually deserve to have a doctorate, I began to find it. I started to see things differently. I understood that no-one knew my research like I did, because no-one had done it before. I also started to see that there’s no way the university would have passed me just to be kind - they had incredibly high standards because I was surrounded by exceptional colleagues and peers. I learned that by understanding where fraudulent feelings come from and actively questioning them, we can in fact reduce their grip.
Feeling a Fraud as a Coach, Guide, Healer or Facilitator
I’ve yet to work with a client, no matter what stage of business they are at, that hasn’t struggled with feeling like an imposter. These clients are usually overwhelmed, holding back, procrastinating or engaging in perfectionist behaviour - these are the common coping mechanisms that accompany the imposter phenomenon.
One thing I help them realise is that we’re not ever truly new at anything.
Regardless of if you’re starting a new business, pivoting in your existing business, or offering a new programme, this is simply a new chapter of your journey and you’re bringing in all your transferable skills, experience, talents and knowledge into this new chapter.
If you’ve ever been in a position of management or responsible for a team, you already have hours of experience.
If you’ve been reading every book on your subject for the past 3 years and experimenting on integrating what you’ve been learning in your own life, you already have an incredible amount of knowledge.
If you’re a mom or a sister or a daughter, oh my god, you’re born to hold space.
As a powerful exercise, I invite you all of my clients to write a list of all their past experience, paid and unpaid, and for each one, write why and how it contributes to the work they want to do in the world. I invite you to also do this, and feel your sense of feeling like an imposter magically lessen.
Being In Integrity & Improving Our Skills
After all of this, you might be thinking: how do I prevent myself from getting into a situation where I am out of my depth in terms of skill and experience?
Just as it’s powerful to own what you are capable of doing, it’s also equally potent to be clear and in integrity about what you’re not able to do, without shame or apology.
Years ago, as I started to own my skills as a yoga teacher, I made it very clear that if people wanted to learn how to handstand or master the more advanced poses, I wasn’t the teacher for them. But if they wanted to be guided back to their own essence, and enjoyed yoga philosophy, they’d probably love my classes. I didn’t try to be everything for everyone.
Believe it or not, you are allowed to not know things. And I find we actually boost our confidence when we are upfront about the limits of our expertise.
Likewise when I started life coaching, I made it clear to my clients that, although I was trauma-informed, I wasn’t a trauma specialist. If I felt a client needed something different to what I could offer, I would refer them for a few sessions with a trusted peer. This is ethical and in integrity, we cannot promise what we have no experience in delivering.
A huge part of moving past imposter syndrome as a coach, guide or facilitator, is therefore being clear about what your role is. As a business mentor for example, I know that my job is to hold space, support, share guidance, and suggest strategies. My job is not to do the work for my clients. I make sure that my marketing and messaging reflects this. I don’t disempower my community by suggesting to them that they need my secret formula or they won’t succeed. I share with them that my programmes can indeed fast-track their growth. Some of my clients race ahead and and others take their time. I know that their journey is uniquely their own and that my job is to support them and love them through their process. Now that I’m very clear on what my role is, I don't listen to the self-doubt when it comes up.
Having a very clear and specific offer can do wonders for imposter syndrome. When we are clear about who we are, the skills we have, who we can help and how, it allows us to go deep with our clients, which builds our confidence. When we don’t believe we have to be all things to everyone, the imposter syndrome starts to lessen its grip.
Sometimes feeling doubtful of our capacity may be simply showing us where we do lack gaps in our knowledge or experience. It’s up to us to decide if we need to or even want to fill those gaps in the first place, by getting more experience or doing a specialised training, or not. As an example, I don't have any experience in using paid ads as a way to grow a business, it's not something I'm interested in, and it's therefore not something I feel I need to include in my programme Awaken to Freedom, which teaches priestesses how to create, deliver and book out their offers using simple social media strategies. If a prospective client wanted specifically to learn paid advertising, I could let them know, without apology, that it's not something I'm an expert in, but that the programme helps them master the foundations, such as messaging, that would probably help their ads convert better.
So, to recap:
Would you like to be part of a community of powerful priestesses who are dedicating themselves to creating, delivering and booking out their services? Find out more and apply here.
Love Sarah x